Fear, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew, would paralyze a nation more quickly than anything else. In recent years politicians have rather cynically used that information to sway voters. Fear-mongers, such as Trump, tend to have the upper hand because, ignoring FDR, we’ve given in to our fears. The shootings in Las Vegas on Sunday night are only one more example. The NRA, which has doggedly insists that the only way to combat guns is with more guns, defends its rhetoric yet again as 59 people have needlessly died just for attending a concert where a madman checked 23 guns into a hotel room with him far above. Conceal and carry is no solution to fear. Guns have no place in the hands of a fearful public.
A profound sadness accompanies such insane violence, supported almost unequivocally by the GOP. It’s not a matter of someone armed in the crowd shooting back; the shooters take the initiative of taking their own life when some hidden trigger tells them they’ve murdered enough. We see the pattern over, and over, and over. We are a violent people. A violent people have no business having easy access to weapons. As long as money has politicians in its wallet this will never change. We’re all afraid of those who have the guns. And Washington has a perverse love of money. Those of us who don’t have guns are easy to push around. That’s what America is all about anyway.
As this past election showed, and continues to show, a candidate without a mandate may easily buy the White House. The causes held so dear by the Republican Party—guns, no healthcare, tax plans that favor the wealthiest—all of this plays to our fears and gives them power. If we weren’t afraid, what need would we have of guns? After many decades of helping the poorest be an active part of this country, Washington is now intent on dismantling the aging safety nets we’ve put in place. Retirement is a reality for a very few. Medical costs are, even with Obamacare, still a constant worry for many. Natural disasters come and we can’t mobilize even to help our own. But we’ve got guns. Fear itself has come to define the home of the brave. It is said that Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, never let the mansion built on blood money be finished for fear of haunting. That is one fear we apparently no longer have, even though guns have no effect on ghosts.
New York City, in a public place—I dare not say where—I see this sign. A certain Orwellian chill shivers my mind as I think back to 1984. Posters everywhere; you are being watched. If you see something, say something. NYPD Security Camera in Area. We have let our fear drive us into the arms of Big Brother. The problem with principle is that it requires a fair amount of spine. Who can stand in the face of possible, if remote, terrorist attack? Is it not the large, amorphous, faceless government that we, along with millions of strangers, have elected? I’ve read about their behavior; I’m not sure I want them watching me.
We have let fear define us. How far we have come from FDR’s admonition that the only thing we have to fear is freedom itself. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t approve of terrorists or any other cowards. If our response, however, is to cower in the many corners of our crowded cities while our own military patrols the parameter, well, the last place I recall like that was my visit to Jerusalem just months before the First Intifada. Even the bus drivers wore pistols. The heat from that burning car beside the road was worse than anything the Judaean Wilderness could throw at you. And still they long for peace.
Differing political and social outlooks need not come to blows. I’ll admit to being a shameless idealist if you’ll lay down your guns. Even if you won’t. It seems to me that we’ve forged ourselves a chain that reinforces outmoded associations. We can create the most intelligent weapons imaginable, but we can’t figure out how to cut a simple chain. Yes, I eye each jet flying a little too low with suspicion, and sometimes I walk a little too swiftly through the crowds at Times Square. I’d like to pretend I’m free, but ever since I read 1984—and it was close to that time—I’ve noticed that Big Brother looms taller than any tower in a world where inequality persists.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so the books of Psalms and Proverbs agree. It must be true. Religion and fear walk happily along hand-in-hand. Some have suggested that religion began as a human response to fear. So this week I felt a little conflicted as I read Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. The book had been recommended to me by one of my brothers. As a child fear defined me—it seemed that in a world where God was meant to be feared (for I was a literalist) that fear was the basic operating system for life itself. Gardner’s book is a fascinating exposé of the culture of fear. Gardner doesn’t really suggest that fear should be eliminated, but he does show how many of those in power manipulate fear into a faulty perception of risk management, for their own advantage. Beginning with 9/11 he demonstrates how the irrational responses of people to the tragedy led to even more deaths that quickly became buried in the white noise of everyday society. Comparing Bush’s response to FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Gardner demonstrates that the United States emerged from the depression and Second World War weary but confident and strong. After Bush’s two terms, the country is cowering and weaker. Why? The Bush administration heavily mongered fear.
Funnily enough, the release from fear comes from two main sources: statistics and psychology. Statistics reveal the true odds of common fears—these can be inflated so as to create an atmosphere of threat. People, as herd animals, will gladly give more power to the alpha male when serious treat is perceived (don’t kid yourself, politicians have long known this). Psychology enters the scenario because people think with both reason and emotion. Our immediate, visceral response (the “gut reaction”) is instantaneous and powerful, developed from millennia of evolution. It is, however, irrational. Reasoned responses, often better for us, take longer and people do not like to force themselves to think hard. We have a whole educational system to prove that. Faced with hard thinking or quick solving, which do you prefer? Be honest now!
Ultimately The Science of Fear is an optimistic book. Being made aware of the problem is half the struggle. Garden-variety fear is fine. Systemic fear paralyzes. Religion is often defined as one of the building blocks of culture. Instead of offering release from fear, religions frequently add their own ingredients for recipes of even greater fear. The concept of Hell is a great example: think of the worse thing you possibly can. Multiply it by several orders of magnitude. Repeat. And repeat. You’re still not even close to how bad Hell is. There’s your motivation right there. Place that religion in the midst of a society rich with natural resources and led by schemers who know that xenophobia increases power, and voila! Paradise on earth for some, a life of fear for the rest. Manipulation characterizes both the evolution of religions and societies. Gardner doesn’t directly address the religious side, but that’s the beauty of reason: he doesn’t have to. The cycle can be broken; think of Mark Twain’s words I’ve selected as a title. Think hard.